Virtual Heaven by Ann Lawrence
(Love Spell, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-505-52307-8
What a clever and original concept for a paranormal romance! Imagine that you are in a virtual reality game booth when a thunder storm sends bolts of lightning through the game mechanism and sends you right into the game. Thus did Maggie O'Brien find herself in the strange land of Tolemac and in the arms of the hunk of a hero whose picture she had admired on the game poster.

Maggie knew a little bit about the Tolemac Wars game before her unexpected transportation to its world. She knew that the hero was on a quest, she knew that he would face all sorts of dangers, and she knew that another character, Shadow Woman, played an important role in protecting the hero. But she had no idea just how different this world would be from 20th century America.

Kered has come to the mountain, Hart Fell, to consult the sage Nilrum when the strange woman appears at his feet. Kered is the adopted son of the head of Tolemac's council and is a warrior of great renown. But he has grown weary of war and wishes to find a way to make peace. However, there is a faction on the council which wants all-out war with the Selaw people. Kered has not yet been admitted to the council and wants Nilrum to advise him on how he can earn the position.

Nilrum insists that the appearance of the strange woman is an omen, especially since the pendant she wears bears the symbols of ancient times. If Kered wishes to join the council he must go in search of the legendary sword of Ruhtra and the stolen sacred cup of Liarg. These feats will bring him the fame and the additional arm rings he needs to become a member of the council and argue for peace.

Arm rings are a big deal in Tolemac. The fact that Maggie wears none brands her as a slave. As a runaway, she can be punished if found by her master or anyone can claim her. Nilrum convinces Kered that she is an important part of his quest, and Maggie has no choice but to accompany him on his mission. It helps that she was holding the game gun when she made her unexpected trip and that the weapon works just as effectively in this strange world as it did in the game booth.

Maggie comes to recognize that she is the Shadow Woman of the game, who will save Kered from his foes and help him in his quest.

Lawrence has thus set up a multi-layered plot that kept this reader turning the pages. There is the quest itself, with all the attendant dangers. (Anyone who has watched her son play these games will see how well the author uses the game rubrics.) There is Maggie's forced adaptation to a strange society where slavery is the norm and where women are not treated with any degree of political correctness. There is the romance between Kered and Maggie, a doomed love given the societal restrictions against lifemating between a warrior and a slave.

Frankly, I wondered how Lawrence was going to pull off the requisite happy ending and I have to admit that her method was as clever as the premise itself. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

The relationship between Maggie and Kered is very well drawn. Maggie is understandably dismayed at finding herself in such a position in such a world. But she generally acts wisely and sensibly, trying to make the best of her situation. And Kered is the best of her situation. Kered comes to admire the unique qualities of his "slave," who is so capable and so different from the women of Tolemac, whether free or slave. Admiration turns to attraction which turns to love.

Lawrence does a good job of creating an alternative reality, a fantasy world with its own beliefs, institutions, and mores. Fans of fantasy romance and those who have enjoyed Dara Joy's Matrix of Destiny series should find Virtual Heaven especially appealing. But I think any reader who enjoys a well written, action-packed romance that can steam up the windows will appreciate Lawrence's debut novel. Now, will Vad have his own story?

--Jean Mason

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